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Has Science Shown That Consciousness Is Only an Illusion?

Using clever analogies, Philosopher Daniel Dennett argues that consciousness is all smoke and mirrors
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Daniel Dennett

The philosopher best known for the idea that consciousness is really just an illusion is Daniel Dennett.  Here’s one image,  to unpack his idea:

What we think of as our consciousness is actually our brains pulling a number of tricks to conjure up the world as we experience it. But in reality, it’s all smoke, mirrors, and rapidly firing neurons…

Our brains, pulling such tricks, are robots:

But it goes even further than that: if our brains are robots, then our neurons are smaller robots, which are in turn made up of even smaller robots. So even if we lose the concept of consciousness along the way, we’re still pretty incredible “machines.” Reuben Westmaas, “There’s No Such Thing as Consciousness, According to Philosopher Daniel Dennett” at Curiosity.com

In Dennett’s scheme, the robots that form our minds have evolved via Darwinian evolution:

In the minds of other animals, even insects, Dennett believes, we can see the functional components upon which our selfhood depends. We can also see the qualities we value most in human selfhood in “sort of” form. Even free will, he thinks, evolves over evolutionary time. Your amygdala, the part of the brain that registers fear, may not be free in any meaningful sense—it’s effectively a robot—but it endows the mind to which it belongs with the ability to avoid danger. In this way, the winding path leads from determinism to freedom, too: “A whole can be freer than its parts.” Joshua Rothman, “Daniel Dennett’s Science of the Soul” at New Yorker

Dennett’s integration of popular evolution theory into his work appeals to many science writers, as this snippet from a BBC news item shows:

From an evolutionary perspective, our ability to think is no different from our ability to digest, says Dennett.

Both these biological activities can be explained by Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection, often described as the survival of the fittest.

We evolved from uncomprehending bacteria. Our minds, with all their remarkable talents, are the result of endless biological experiments.

Our genius is not God-given. It’s the result of millions of years of trial and error. Anna Buckley, “Is consciousness just an illusion?” at BBC News

BBC writer Buckley makes these statements with remarkable self-assurance but the trouble is, not one of them is defensible science. Take, for example, “our ability to think is no different from our ability to digest”: That’s nonsense. There is a Hard Problem of consciousness; there is no hard problem of digestion. Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection does not and cannot address the Hard Problem (the first person perspective). No evolutionary biologist thinks that humans “evolved from” bacteria either; we belong to a quite different kingdom of life from bacteria. And whether or not our genius is God-given is certainly a matter of opinion.

Not all science writers are mere fans; some examine the philosopher’s claims in more detail. Dennett’s use of the term “illusion” is a source of confusion, says John Horgan, in a review of his book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back (2017):

An illusion is a false perception. Our thoughts are imperfect representations of our brain/minds and of the world, but that doesn’t make them necessarily false.

For that matter, their imperfection doesn’t make them non-existent or without effect. Horgan goes on to say,

Dennett’s arguments are so convoluted that he allows himself plausible deniability, but he seems to be advocating eliminative materialism, which the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines as “the radical claim that our ordinary, common-sense understanding of the mind is deeply wrong and that some or all of the mental states posited by common-sense do not actually exist.” John Horgan, “Is Consciousness Real?” at Scientific American

The philosopher appeals to clever analogies to robots and phone screens to back up his theories, not to evidence.

Thomas Nagel picture
Thomas Nagel

Indeed, a question arises as to what evidence there could even be. Another prominent philosopher, Thomas Nagel, points out that even if consciousness is an illusion, it is a “real” illusion. An illustration may help: If you see a phone number you recognize on your screen, the number is an “illusion” in the sense that it is a representation for your convenience of electronic events that you cannot visualize. But the number is telling you that your friend is calling right now. That’s not an illusion at all.

Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor clarifies the matter:

We must keep in mind that we are conscious only of the objects of our thoughts, not of the processes by which we have those thoughts. We have a composite of unconscious and conscious mental powers, working in synchrony, each indispensable to the thought. There is “that which we think” and “that by which we think.” We are conscious only of the former, but the latter, which is unconscious, is just as essential to our thought.

Why bother, you might ask, with all of this conceptual gymnastics? Why split hairs? Why not just say that we are conscious of perceptions, understandings, etc.? Why make a distinction between the unconscious process of thought and the conscious object of thought? As it turns out, it is vitally important that we do so. The failure to do so has been a catastrophic philosophical mistake that plagues philosophy and neuroscience to this day.

Dennett’s philosophy seems to be founded on that mistake. As Nagel points out:

To say that there is more to reality than physics can account for is not a piece of mysticism: it is an acknowledgement that we are nowhere near a theory of everything, and that science will have to expand to accommodate facts of a kind fundamentally different from those that physics is designed to explain. Thomas Nagel, “Is Consciousness an Illusion?” at New York Review of Books

David Papineau

Nagel is hardly the only thinker to see that Dennett’s claim to represent science is suspect:

Dennett likes to present his views as forced on us by science. If only we would free ourselves from outmoded myths, and open ourselves to the latest discoveries, he repeatedly assures us, we would be able to see things as he and his scientific allies do. Readers should be wary of this rhetoric. In truth Dennett’s distinctive views are by no means common currency among the scientific experts. Most cognitive scientists have no doubt that consciousness is real, and most social scientists accept that advanced human culture rests crucially on means-end understanding. This is not to say that Dennett’s theses are pulled out of thin air. They have the backing of a developed theoretical framework. But this framework owes far more to Dennett’s long-standing philosophical commitments than to his familiarity with the latest science. David Papineau, “Competence without Comprehension” at Times Literary Supplement

On that account, British philosopher Papineau recommends taking Dennett’s theories “with a pinch of salt.” American essayist David Bentley Hart is less charitable: “Daniel Dennett’s latest book marks five decades of majestic failure to explain consciousness”:

Simply enough, you cannot suffer the illusion that you are conscious because illusions are possible only for conscious minds. This is so incandescently obvious that it is almost embarrassing to have to state it. David Bentley Hart, “The Illusionist” at The New Atlantis (2017)

Saying that consciousness is wholly an illusion borrows apparent credibility from the fact that some of our beliefs are illusions. We may believe that the home team is the best in the league only to be disappointed by published scores. But what causes us to have the illusory belief is not itself an illusion even if we do not understand how it works.

And we do not, in fact, understand how it works. That’s the Hard Problem of consciousness that continues to bedevil the smartest philosophers and scientists.

See also: In one sense, consciousness IS an illusion (Michael Egnor) 

How can consciousness be a material thing? Maybe it can’t. But materialist philosophers face starkly limited choices in how to view consciousness. In analytical philosopher Galen Strawson’s opinion, our childhood memories of pancakes on Saturday, for example, are—and must be—”wholly physical.”

Panpsychism: You are conscious but so is your coffee mug


Consciousness Studies Is a “Bizarre” Field of Science